The death this week of Linda C. Brown, who as a young girl in Topeka, Kan., in the early 1950s was at the center of the Brown v. Board of Education case on racial segregation in the schools, prompted some personal reflections for a reporter who has written about the historic case many times over the last 25 years.
With Brown’s death at age 75 in her hometown of Topeka on March 25, I recalled my one visit to that city 14 years ago. The occasion was the approaching 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 17, 1954, decision holding that “separate but equal” education for black students violated the U.S. Constitution.
Two months before the anniversary, a number of guests were invited to tour the Monroe School, the black elementary school that Linda Brown attended when her father, Oliver L. Brown, joined the lawsuit challenging racial segregation. By 2004, the long-closed school had been restored and turned into the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, which included a museum devoted to the Topeka case and its companion cases in the Brown decision from Delaware, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, and Virginia.
There was also a forum at the Kansas University in nearby Lawrence, where I had hoped to meet and interview Linda Brown. I met her sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson, the youngest daughter of Oliver Brown, who was now the head of the family foundation that was instrumental in restoring the Monroe School and preserving the legacy of the case. I also met Leola Brown Montgomery, the mother of the Brown girls, who was 82 at the time and poignantly recalled the day of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown.
(Oliver Brown died in 1961. Montgomery, now 96, survives her daughter’s death, according to obituary on the Brown Foundation’s website. Linda Brown is also survived by her other sister, Terry Brown Taylor; her son, Charles D. Smith, and her daughter, Kimberly A. Smith; and three grandchildren, three stepgrandchildren, and three great grandchildren.)
At that Kansas University event and the Monroe School preview, Linda Brown either was not present or was staying in the background. More surprisingly, she apparently did not attend (or stayed very much in the background) on May 17, 2004, when President George W. Bush came to Topeka to dedicate the new National Park Service site at the Monroe School. The president made no mention of Linda Brown in his remarks.
A few other recollections remain with me from my visit to Topeka for the preview look at the Monroe School historic site that March. After the event at the school in the morning, I made my way to downtown Topeka, where the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade was about to start. For a city with a population then of only about 122,00 people, Topeka put on a pretty impressive parade.
My main reason for going downtown was to get a glimpse of the federal courthouse, where in 1951 a three-judge federal district court conducted the trial in the lawsuit challenging racial segregation in Topeka’s elementary schools that had been filed by Oliver Brown and a dozen other plaintiffs.
Neither Linda Brown nor any of the other 19 black Topeka schoolchildren encompassed by the lawsuit testified during the trial. Oliver Brown was among the parents who did. Thurgood Marshall, who directed the NAACP’s strategy for challenging legally sanctioned racial segregation in education and argued the Brown cases before the Supreme Court, did not come to Topeka. NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers Robert L. Carter and Jack Greenberg joined with several local Topeka lawyers for the trial.
My tour of Topeka continued with a visit to the area where the Browns’ home had once stood, near the railroad yard where Linda Brown had to cross multiple tracks and a busy road just to get to the bus stop where a school bus would pick her up to take her the two miles to Monroe School.
I also visited the Sumner School building, just a few blocks from where the Browns lived. This is where Oliver Brown had sought to enroll Linda Brown for 3rd grade in the fall of 1950, and was turned down by the principal enforcing the school district’s policy of segregation. The father’s chief complaint was not that his daughter was receiving an inferior education at the all-black Monroe School, but about the distance that Linda Brown had to travel.
The Sumner School, with its ornate Italian Renaissance architecture, was no longer a public school and looked quite rundown by 2004. (I can’t recall what it was being used for then.)
At some point while I was in Lawrence, I visited the university bookstore, interested in checking out what books it might have about the Brown case. Long before then, I had read and re-read Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice, a 780-page account of all the cases making up the Supreme Court’s Brown decision. But despite Kluger’s exhaustive research, that daunting book left me with a few questions about the some of the details of the Topeka case itself.
At the university bookstore, I found what I was looking for. It was a concise, 230-page volume titled A Time to Lose: Representing Kansas in Brown v. Board of Education. It was written by Paul E. Wilson, who as a young assistant attorney general in the Kansas attorney general’s office in the early 1950s was thrust reluctantly into the role of defending the state’s segregation law in the U.S. Supreme Court, both in the fall of 1952 and again in the fall of 1953 when the cases were re-argued.
Far from being a defense of legal segregation, Wilson’s book tells of his own and his colleagues’ ambivalence about defending a Kansas law passed decades earlier that, unlike the mandatory statewide segregation required by Jim Crow laws in the Deep South, merely permitted Kansas’s largest city school districts to segregate white and black schoolchildren in the elementary grades only.
Wilson, who wrote the book in 1995, some 40 years after he had participated in the historic case, also gives a clear-eyed account of the Topeka case that fills in some details that Kluger’s book misses.
For example, Wilson spends several pages examining how it came to be that Oliver Brown ended up as the lead plaintiff in the Topeka case, and how that case led the pack among the four state cases covered by the Supreme Court’s Brown decision.
Wilson concludes that Oliver Brown was listed first because he was the only man among the 13 Topeka parents who joined the suit organized by the NAACP. (As for the second question, he suggests the Kansas case was listed first by the Supreme Court because it had the lowest docket number among the consolidated cases; others have suggested the justices considered it prudent to have the divisive decision lead off with the one case that was not from a former slave state.)
After discussing the contributions of various other residents of Topeka in the local case, Wilson concludes, “It does not diminish the Brown role to suggest that the victory often attributed to Oliver and Linda Brown was the successful climax to the vision and strivings of many Topekans.”
For Linda Brown, one irony of her famous role in the case is that she never had the chance to attend Sumner School or integrate another former segregated school. When the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in May 1954, Brown was finishing 6th grade at the Monroe School.
“The following school term was so very different, but not for me,” Linda Brown said during a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York in 2004. “I was never to benefit from the now-famous decision. For during the ’54 school term, I entered junior high school, which was already on an integrated basis, as were the high schools in the city.”
“Integration in the city in the fall of 1954 went very smoothly,” Brown added. “It seemed blacks and whites had been going to school together for years. Neither I nor my family suffered the abuse or racial strife that marked integration in the latter ‘50s and early ‘60s in so many parts of the country. We were very fortunate, my father would often say. He believed very strongly that God would move people to do the right thing.”
As Brown well knew, desegregation did not go as smoothly everywhere. It was a long struggle, one in which she remained active in multiple ways, including when she joined the successful effort to re-open the Topeka desegregation case in 1979, which eventually led to further court-ordered remedies.
Linda Brown the daughter, mother, grandmother, and litigant is now gone. Linda Brown the civil rights icon remains. And although this reporter did not ever get to meet her, it was meaningful to have walked in just a few of her footsteps.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.